Keeping an Eye on rare grebes

If you speed along the M6 over the Thelwall viaduct – which crosses the Manchester Ship Canal and the river Mersey – you could easily miss the fact that you are within a stone’s throw of a lovely nature reserve which hosts a colony of one of Britain’s rarest breeding birds, the Black-necked Grebe.

The bridge onto the number 3 bed at Woolson Eyes Nature Reserve

The footbridge onto the number 3 bed at Woolson Eyes Nature Reserve

The Woolston Eyes Nature Reserve is independently run by a group of volunteers. Its centrepiece is the ‘No. 3 bed’, which is virtually an island, nestled within a river meander and cut off by another canal. It seems an ideal place for a rare bird to breed, because it is difficult for humans to access, as one requires both a permit and a key to unlock the gate on the footbridge across to it! The site itself is dominated by mixed scrubland, which provides much bird-friendly habitat, and a large, shallow lake on which the grebes live.

One of the first thing that struck me at the lake was the large and noisy colony of black-headed gulls, and I wondered whether they represented a threat to the grebes’ safety. I discovered later that the opposite appears to be the case: the grebes often nest near colonies of black-headed gulls, which probably provide some form of protection, possibly as an early-warning system.

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

There are about 50 to 100 breeding pairs in the UK every year, which are at the western end of a Eurasian population of about 100,000 – most of which live in Russia and Ukraine. There’s also a very abundant subspecies in the western USA, and another smaller one in southern Africa – so despite their rarity in Britian they are not significantly threatened on a global scale.

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Grebe species are almost invariably attractive to look at, and the black-necked ones are no exception with their bright yellow ear-tufts.

As I arrived I happened to meet Brian Martin, the recorder for the site: he was very helpful in telling me about the layout of the site and where the best hides were for the grebes. It struck me that there are real benefits to having a nature reserve being run by volunteers, who are doing it because of their own enthusiasm and passion; a similar example might be Upton Warren near Droitwich, which belongs to the Wilidlife Trusts but is also managed by a committed team of volunteers.

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Black-necked grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Black-necked grebes are very watchable, being highly active – mainly because they are constantly diving for food. Photographically, this provided a challenge: I’d line up the camera to take the photo and, just as I was pressing the shutter, the grebe would dive from view!

Black-necked grebe diving from view

Black-necked grebe diving from view

This particular grebe species appears to be highly social: thus on one occasion some years ago Brian Martin saw about 24 active in one small part of the lake. Perhaps because of this sociality they have a reputation for rapidly colonising an area and then abandoning it with equal rapidity.

Like most grebes they have distinctive courtship rituals: I saw several pairs go through head-shaking routines. However these rituals are not as elaborate as those of Great Crested or Slavonian grebes.

Black-necked grebes are highly social.

Black-necked grebes are highly social.

Despite the time I spent looking at the black-necked grebes, my best grebe photos were of a Great Crested early in the day: it’s a larger bird which also came much closer to the hide.

Great Crested Grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

Great Crested Grebe at Woolston Eyes NR

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